Saturday, May 10, 2003

The Economics of Jay Nation

As some of you know I’ve been sending drafts of this document to people for their amusement and mine. One such person, a good friend whom I respect and trust immensely, replied with an email entitled “The Birds Are Getting Fat.” And, indeed, he was correct. The Jays, the Robins, even the hummingbirds (just a tad jowly) have looked slimmer. I understood the subtext, of course (the email contained job listings), but I still stopped feeding the Jays every day. I was concerned about my activities somehow affecting the larger ecosystem. The truth is I’d seen swarms of spiders crawling the lawn, and we’re being overrun (slowly) by a stampede of slugs (a six inch long leopard slug slimed up the kitchen window last week). I don’t know if these creatures comprise the natural diet of the Steller’s Jay, all I’ve ever seen a Steller’s Jay eat is a Hoody’s unsalted peanut. But, based on the recommendations of a graduate of the Harvard Business School, and an inherent belief that birds unfed long enough might just find slugs and spiders appetizing, I decided to put the Jays on a diet to see what would happen.
Let me tell you the results have been nothing short of amazing. I had always simply accepted the law of supply and demand. I’d read about it in books and heard learned folks discuss it, but it had never been more immediate than the battle for the last bit of Ben & Jerry’s. That is until I saw hungry Jays.
Initially, I just randomly started skipping days. I’d not feed them one day, and then the next day leave a few peanuts near where I’d seen the most spiders. (There do seem to be fewer spiders, but I have no empirical evidence to prove my actions [or inactions] caused this perceived reduction). On days following non-feeding days I seemed to notice a series of bird calls after I’d spread out the nuts. Nate really enjoys Jay-feeding time and has gotten quite adept at cracking the peanuts, pulling out the nuts, sticking them in his mouth and then spitting them on the deck. Now that we have him trained to spit out the nuts, we’re going to take him to a baseball game and he’s going to be irate with me when I chew and actually swallow (gasp) a peanut. Anyway, as he muddles around with the nuts, I have time to observe both him and the world around him. I’m convinced the Jays have started leaving a scout near the deck. I no longer feed them only in the morning, sometimes I’ll feed them in the afternoon, sometimes dusk, sometimes not at all. Yet, it never fails that within a few minutes of putting out the nuts the bird calls begin. It’s as if the flock has spotters throughout the neighborhood just waiting for a food sighting and then they start a phone tree of sorts, each call getting more distant until the whole flock has been notified and they come swooping in to get their grub. I recognize that I’m personifying the actions of animals, and I’m assuming an ordered form of communication and cooperation within a group of lesser beings. And, again, I’m dipping an uneducated toe into a scientific pond that has (no doubt) been amply explored. Regardless, I started to marvel at the actions of the Jays every time I fed them. This sense of wonder, combined with the obvious pleasure Nate garnered from the event, made it more difficult to not feed the Jays. But, not feed them I did. (I love that sentence for some reason).
Then, this morning, when I was playing with Nathan in the driveway (he likes climbing in and out of my car), I heard a ruckus in the bushes. There were two Jays fighting! How could this be? What happened to the spirit of mutual cooperation amongst this flock of Jays? I had not fed them that day, indeed I could not remember the last time I had, it could have been several days. Is it possible that when faced with a short-term reduction in supply these previously friendly birds lost all amity and became mortal enemies? Is hunger such a powerful motivator that it outweighs all prior feelings of esprit de corps?
And then it hit me. Jay Nation is America. We all work together (or give the impression of working together), but the moment there’s not enough to go around we’re squawking and screeching and trying to snatch a peanut scrap out of the mouths of our fellow citizens. We’ll all stand united to defeat the evil chipmunk. As long as we’re happy, we’ll leave Robin Nation alone to pick at the worms. Yet the moment there’s an ounce of difficulty we’re ready to drop mitts and brawl. Or at least whine. Let’s face it we’re all a bunch of selfish whiners. And, I’m the worst of the flock. I’ve got a wonderful wife who loves and supports me, a fantastic kid who I get to spend more time with than 99% of all fathers, and I benefited financially from an anomalous tech-boom that I dumbly stumbled into having little or no training to justify the jobs I had. My background and education (I typed my thesis. On a typewriter. Before my first job out of college, I had never used a computer or took any sort of computer class, ever.) gave me about as much right to work in high-tech as George W. Bush’s gave him to be president. And there’s the rub (are you catching on to the rhythm of these chapters?). It’s not about who’s qualified or who’s deserving, it’s about who’s willing to take it. Do the Jays sit around and think, “Golly, I really shouldn’t take that last peanut from Gaston. He’s getting kind of old and can’t see as well as he did back in ’92 when he was managing this flock. I’ll just leave it for him.”
No, of course they don’t. I’m no zoologist, but I’d wager that the vast majority of animals in the wild are only interested in taking care of themselves. The question we as humans should be asking ourselves is, are we animals in the wild?

No comments: